Skip to main content
Full Menu
News Stories

The Pearson octopus

New York Teacher

Parents and teachers can’t escape the name: Pearson. It’s on worksheets, standardized tests, textbooks. And that’s not just in New York City.

Pearson Education, the British education and publishing giant, is in the vanguard of the growing movement to privatize public education, and its tentacles are reaching far and wide in the United States and abroad.

Just before No Child Left Behind became law 14 years ago with the requirement of more testing in U.S. public schools, Pearson acquired NCS, a testing company. Three years ago, Pearson put $15 million into a fund it established to support for-profit education entrepreneurs in Asia, Africa and Latin America. A recent Fortune magazine profile put the company’s annual revenues at $8.2 billion worldwide.

Alan Singer, a Hofstra University professor and Huffington Post education writer, has called Pearson an octopus and compared it to the robber barons who exploited the country’s natural resources 100 years ago to amass their wealth. Pearson, according to Singer, is exploiting our public education resources.

In the United States, Pearson has profited from both the increase in standardized testing and the adoption of the Common Core Learning Standards.

Revenues from its U.S. testing business alone were about $258 million in 2012. Its recent win of the contract to administer and score the new exams for 10 states in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium will bring it at least another $138 million this year alone.

Pearson also remade the General Education Development (GED) test to align it with the Common Core. No longer is the GED a nonprofit enterprise. GED is now a registered trademark of Pearson, costs $120 per student and is offered only online. A recent report on National Public Radio found that the number of students passing the new GED has dropped dramatically, and 16 states are already looking for alternative tests.

Pearson has come under greater scrutiny as its influence has grown.

One of the most startling assessments was posted last year on Glassdoor, a website that compiles company reviews by employees in addition to job listings.

A person who identified himself as a Pearson employee praised the staff that remained after a round of layoffs, but was contemptuous of the company’s leadership:

“Let’s not kid ourselves — the Pearson play is about standardized testing at the global level, and that includes in higher ed as well as K–12 schools. They also want to become the school itself in many parts of the world. So they are riding the wave of privatization and following the money. But can they survive the negative press they increasingly generate? And their own incompetence? … It’s a hot mess.”

Pearson’s failures have also been tallied by opponents of standardized testing and school privatization. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has a long list on its website at www.fairtest.org.

In New York alone, Pearson made errors in scoring the Gifted and Talented test in 2013 that initially shut out about 2,700 students who should have qualified for the program. Last year, the state’s Pearson-made tests for grades 3–8 were found to have many irrelevant and ambiguous questions. Principal Elizabeth Phillips of PS 321 in Brooklyn told a panel at New York University, “If anyone were to teach to this test, we’d wind up with illiterate children.”

Legal problems have also mounted. The company was forced to pay $7.7 million in fines and disband its charitable arm in 2013 after the New York State attorney general found the company’s nonprofit foundation had been generating business for the for-profit side. In Los Angeles, the city’s schools superintendent resigned after backdoor deals with Pearson came to light.

That hasn’t stopped the Pearson juggernaut.

Fortune magazine noted that the student assessment business is now a $2.5 billion industry, and in less than a decade Pearson has come to dominate the field. Pearson is poised to continue growing and influencing the shape of education in the United States and around the world.